The biggest failure for progressives in the August 17 primary election was the inability to unseat supreme court justice Jim Johnson—the most conservative member of the court, a man so into gun rights that he believes 11-year-olds should be packing, and the author of a 2006 decision that justified banning gay marriage in this state by arguing that gay couples make inferior parents.
Now, because of some exceedingly complicated top-two primary rules, Johnson, having won the primary, is guaranteed a spot on the bench for six more years. What happened? Why couldn't the left elect Stan Rumbaugh, the Tacoma lawyer and former Planned Parenthood board member who progressives were hoping would unseat Johnson? And why did Rumbaugh end up going down so hard, losing by about 24 points and failing to win even liberal King County?
Here are the current theories, in order of believability.
Not enough money. If you add friendly PAC money to the money Rumbaugh raised himself, he had about $366,000 behind his candidacy. That's a chunk of cash, sure, but hardly enough to win a statewide race against an incumbent during an August primary when a small minority of voters is paying attention. "We didn't have the budget to really get beyond the base," says Lisa MacLean, a political consultant who helped run the Impartial Justice PAC, which attacked Johnson using direct mail and social media. Rumbaugh needed more than the base to win. "I think we spent every dime as well as we could," MacLean said. "There just weren't enough dimes."
Not enough gays and gay allies giving money. You might think, given how great an incentive the gay rights community had to defeat Johnson, that Rumbaugh would have been drenched in dough from rich homos and their friends. Not so. "We have to do some soul searching about the level of money being raised and put into campaigns," says Josh Friedes, executive director of the gay advocacy group Equal Rights Washington (ERW). "Because, ultimately, who sits on the bench and who is in Olympia is going to determine an awful lot of outcomes." Friedes says he's "really proud" of the work ERW did to support Rumbaugh—donating $8,000 directly to MacLean's PAC, conducting get-out-the-vote phone banks—but he concedes that Rumbaugh needed far more to win. "We did not raise as much money as we would have liked," Friedes says. One problem: The gay legal community has been reluctant to pour money into judicial races because of a philosophical opposition to the very idea of electing judges. Whether the gay legal community should continue to live in the world it wishes existed (no elected state supreme court justices) or the world as it is (Washington, for better or worse, does in fact elect its supreme court justices) is part of a "long-term conversation" that needs to happen, Friedes says.
Too late a start. Rumbaugh didn't get into the race until just before the June 11 filing deadline. That gave him just nine weeks to mount his candidacy. "Late start," says his campaign consultant Christian Sinderman. "Late start," MacLean told me. "Very, very late," says Friedes.
Johnson is an unbeatable name. "What happened?" asks Aaron Ostrom from the liberal advocacy group Fuse. "The Johnson syndrome. Voters don't have any information about a race but see a name that seems familiar and go for it." Sound far-fetched? Ostrom offers a history lesson: "In 1990, Washington voters elected Charles Johnson—an unknown lawyer from Gig Harbor with no judicial experience who did not campaign—to the state supreme court. He defeated Chief Justice Keith Callow, a widely respected judge with no political liabilities other than a name that rhymed with 'gallow.'" For more contemporary proof that this happens, see a commenter on Slog, The Stranger's blog, who goes by QuickieRegret and wrote on August 18: "I feel shitty about it but voted quickly and ignorant of a few races. I seriously read 'Jim Johnson' and thought, 'Sounds like an average dude,' and checked the box. Felt awful when I read about who he was. I learned my lesson and won't do it again. Sorry, Stan."
The enthusiasm gap. Sinderman says Rumbaugh was hurt by an underinspired liberal base and an ultrainspired conservative base that was excited to turn out for the Rossi-Didier contest in the U.S. Senate race. "The top of the ticket dictates turnout, and the Republican primary was the only game in town," Sinderman said. Or, as Rumbaugh himself put it: "There just wasn't enough interest in the election overall by the people who I needed to have come out and vote for me."
Bad teeth, bad associations. "The most cynical explanation I have is that [Rumbaugh] has absolutely awful teeth," wrote Slog commenter hronk. "I cringed looking at the flyer showing up at my house." Slog commenter roddy added: "To the uninformed Democratic voter, Rumbaugh sounds like Limbaugh. There are lots of uninformed Democratic voters."